This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Santa Barbara Film Festival and its programme is exemplary of the thoughtful diversity for which the 10-day event is justly valued, mixing strands of anthropological and nature documentaries, Quebecois, Spanish-language, Asian and Eastern European cinema, US independent and local films, with plenty of shorts and encompassing an eclectic selection of titles that have already proved themselves solid hits on last year’s circuit (La mujer sin piano, J’ai tué ma mère, Madeo, Lourdes).

One of these last is Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere; Bellocchio burst onto the international scene in 1965 with Fists in the Pocket aged 26, but his profile has remained relatively low ever since. However, in competition at Cannes Vincere was widely hailed as a masterful epic of twentieth-century Italy, although the epic politico-historical nature is presented more by implication than representation as it tells the story of Mussolini’s secret first wife and son, and of her lifelong incarceration in a couple of nun-run lunatic asylums, ignored, forgotten and deliberately erased from history.

Totally anchoring the film is a fine performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Lady Ida Dalser, but she’s given precious little to do but suffer with desperate dignity, clinging to the truth that is constantly denied her, the sense of innate resilience ever-present in her eyes even as her circumstances become more and more pathetic. In fact, the start of the film looks as though it will follow Mussolini himself; somewhat disorienting editing shifts us between 1907 and 1914 as he dares God to strike him dead, desperately rails against mediocrity (Napoleon was “only” a general) and blithely takes the proceeds from Ida’s selling of her furniture and possessions to fund his “Il popolo d’Italia” newspaper before switching from pacifist liberal to fascist wannabe dictator. Life and interest leave the film with him, somewhere before halfway through, as Ida’s story is consistently stagnated by stillborn attempts to persuade her gaolers of the truth and to communicate with her son, who also ends up in a lunatic asylum and dead at 26. Filippo Timi plays father and son in such style that one regrets a missed opportunity – despite his head’s not being nearly fat enough for Mussolini padre, his grotesque and abandoned impersonation (as the son) of his father’s newsreel appearance hints at the compelling character study that might have been.

The use of newsreel footage is the other striking element of the film; from the semi-abstract credit sequence, a montage of distorted naval cannons, existing footage is seamlessly integrated into the narrative, either to illustrate Mussolini’s thoughts and dreams or as real-life sources of headlines and information covering the Sarajevo incident, the papal coronation of Pius XII, and Mussolini’s rise to power. The deft melding of different sources not only compensates for some oddly shaky cutting elsewhere but also serves to keep in mind the wider context of the story, as Mussolini’s ruthless rise to power develops directly from his early, heartless transgression (Vincere means “to win”), which in light of the fascist nuns who guard Ida, comes to seem more and more like a metaphor for what he did to the country. But technical facility and a certain amount of visual beauty – Ida scaling the two-storey barred windows to scatter letters in the moonlit snow is stunning – cannot make up for the dead air of imprisonment that overwhelms the film.

Rating: 6.8/10